The Christmas sweater was once a happy harbinger whose momentum led us through many celebratory, reverent and meaningful holiday seasons. It originally appeared in postwar America in the 1950s, which found a society eager to develop a new identity after the trauma and drudgery of war. Over time, it unintentionally became a unifying, nostalgic and iconic symbol, and it lived happily for decades as a requisite part of celebrating the Christmas season in America.
Mostly crewneck, long-sleeved and with a ribbed hem, motifs included idyllic winter landscapes, hybrids of Fair Isle patterns, Christmas icons or even festive cats often embellished with tiny balls of yarn, bells and puffy applique. Without even a hint of fashion or self-awareness, people wore them simply to participate in the Christmas spirit.
So whether we credit Clark Griswold for cementing the Christmas sweater as a piece reserved only for out-of-touch, embarrassing dads, or if the 1990s called for a cooler, more sophisticated person whose enthusiasm was concealed and image was more controlled, the Christmas sweater disappeared into the commercial ether for a long while, and trends and time went on.
It is not surprising then that it re-emerged with the new millennium, in a time when nostalgia, philosophical questions about technology and a dedication to irony started to take root. It appeared on the helplessly sophisticated Colin Firth in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” in 2001 and later that year on Saturday Night Live. Soon, like wildfire, people everywhere were having ugly Christmas sweater parties. Fashion designers were adding yet another layer of irony, making the hideous sweater that no one wanted into an expensive, doubly ironic commodity.
But the funny thing about irony is that the sarcastic attitude often accompanies a deeper, more genuine longing. We treat the Christmas sweater as an object of smirking derision, but we also long for simpler times when people all had shared values and dedicated themselves to building a voluntary, collective conscience. These days, it seems we have become so driven by the desire to feel unique and sophisticated and modern that we find earnest expressions of enthusiasm, like the Christmas sweater, to be childish and archaic. So we turn to ridicule, with the Frosty the Snowman sweater in puffy felt applique serving as scapegoat.
Of course, very few consider the history of the Christmas sweater before deciding to throw a National-Lampoon-themed party. But for sure, we have reached the post-postmodern era where offering a Christmas greeting may be received with incredulity and having nativity scenes at school is off the table; the season is becoming so pressurized that incidents of depression and credit card debt, stress and strife skyrocket.
But no matter how evolved we are, we all still want what the Christmas sweater suggests. That’s why mommy and me outfits are still alive, why families pose for photos in matching outfits and why we wear ugly sweaters to parties to make fun but secretly like it. We are asserting our desire to progress and yet still submitting to our natural tendencies to be part of a pack, to find belonging.
We cannot resurrect the Christmas sweater and somehow get that earnest, honest moment back. But truth does have its way of discovering itself. In the meantime, if you find a light-up reindeer sweater in a size medium, do send it my way.